Table of Contents
Dreams & Passions!
The Media: I said that!?!
A Chat about Breeding: Gait
Inuit Dogs on the Web
Behavioral Notebook: Getting Personal
Janice Howls: Big Dogs are Here to Stay
IMHO: On Being Doggie
Janice Howls: Big Dogs Are Here To Stay!
by Janice Dougherty
"...the 'old' style of big, mean dogs are being bred out of existence, simply because they are not as fast as modern dogs, which are smaller, faster, and hopefully friendlier."
This is a quote from Martin Buser in an article entitled "Taking Action" by Jay Barrett, published in the May/June 1998 issue of Mushing (Number 62). I have the greatest respect for Martin Buser, and have his autograph on a framed Iditarod print along with Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson. But that phrase in this otherwise important article on dog/child safety immediately plucked a nerve. However, his remark is an important observation. There is a major shift in a large proportion of those people with dog interests, toward the genetic reduction of ALL characteristics that would make the animal challenging to manage by today's average family, and potentially dangerous to unsupervised, untaught children. Just one more step in removing the responsibility from the breeder/owner/parents and placing it on the dog, or worse, the whole canine species. We have selected dogs for dozens of millenia to do work for us - work that is inextricably part of the dog's behavior and drives as a pack animal, a hunter, a guard, a modified predator, and a species amond the most enduring athletes on the planet. Let me remind the reader, if he/she is not already sure, that there is no correlation between being big and being "mean" in any breed or mix of dogs. This thinly veiled reference to Alaskan Malamutes, Greenland and Canadian Inuit Dogs, "Mackenzie River Huskies" and the generally larger, freighting, not-bred-for-speed type of traditional North American sled dog should not be swallowed whole as the truth. Consider, please, the idea that NOT all dogs SHOULD be passive, docile, therapy dogs, or "canine good citizens" (with or without the AKC's nod of recognition). Consider, perhaps that many breeds' time honorred, useful work is, and SHOULD BE the antithesis of "docile".
The much lauded Border Collie is often described by his serious admirers as too driven to be a pet for today's average family. The same is said of many performance bred, field-type hunting dogs. (Although the recent recall of the AKC's Complete Dog Book would have you think otherwise, many long term,honest fanciers stated it clearly). The larger, mastiff derived flock guards are, by definition, NOT DESIGNED as universally social and gentle gadabouts. Keeping terriers that still have some useful vermin killing instincts is equally cautioned when small children are in the home. Military/Police/Schutzhund/Ring Sport breeds are not, or should not be, bred for a soft, open, happy face, to be all welcoming to your visitors and guests. If someone claims to honor the total heritage of the circumpolar, primitive breeds, should they be trying to alter them and market them as the "Eskimo Nanny"?!!! A dog that would take on a polar bear or supplement its own diet in the off season should not be expected to tolerate torture from clumsy or sometimes malicious children - and unfortunately, THAT is what most people REALLY mean when they ask "Are they good with children?"
Now, can these dogs be safely and successfully kept by families with children? Of course, and people have been doing so for as long as people have had dogs. But it does take move savvy, more anticipatory vigilance, socialization and committment to teach both dog and child to respect each other. And a decent fence. Unfortunately, as was thoroughly pointed out in a recent article entitled "Anatomy of a Dog Bite" by Ceci Jones (Dog World, June 1998), most of the American public have not and will not educate themselves to the level of responsibility it would take to own such a dog sensibly. The article also mentions two video tapes on the topic of children and dogs; one is geared to teach children what to do, the other cover the "shoulds" more briefly and then illustrates what kids SHOULD NOT do, and what parents should look for when supervising child-dog interactions. If only these videos and the kennel safety booklet mentioned in Jay Barrett's article in Mushing were made mandatory in all schools and at PTA meetings. Why, despite the volume of information on dogs that is available in print, on video, on the internet and from a qualified rescue organization, why Americans choose to remain ignorant and cling to foolish ways, no one really knows.
With specific reference to the traditional Northern dogs, 99% of the dangerous behavior results, I believe, from owners who are trying to live some sort of Jack London fantasy. Re-read "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang" with an adult, dog experienced eye, and you will (or should) be appalled by his gross misconceptions of the dog/man relationship. Mr. London would have fit in well with the Hollywood/Peta crowd. Well loved fiction of the last century is not competent dog management in the real world. Modern movie and television productions also seem to be stuck perpetuating this type of mythology. People who breed and sell but do not cull dogs who are unstable, genetically shy, OCD types are also major contributors to the population of big, mean dogs, as well as little, mean dogs.
I believe there is something of exquisite, irreplaceable value in the original, primitive dogs. I admire the resilience, the tenacity, the survival instincts, the problem solving ability, the physical and mental toughness, the efficient metabolism. They remind us of what dogs were, and where the modern abilities come from. And when we work with them, they remind us of what WE were before civilization worked its domestication spell on us (well, some of us) as well.
Domestication has well established effects. It results in changes in the hormonal system, the decreased development of the sense organs, a general reduction in brain weight, decreased readiness to act, changes of innate releasing mechanisms. And while selection may be toward one characteristic, many other characteristics are unwittingly affected. ("Introduction to Ethology" by Klaus Immelman). An outrageous idea occurred to me many years ago, and only my closest "dog" friends and I would discuss it. Then with the publication of Mikli and Julie Collins' book, "Dog Driver", someone with more clout and talent than I, put "my" idea in print: "A surprisingly large number of sled dogs have abnormally low levels of thyroid hormone...Since these dogs are often less aggressive, breeders may inadvertently select for the the trait in an effort to eliminate fighting problems. Because hypothyroidism frequently does not appear until later in life, the dog may be bred before the condition is diagnosed, thus passing on the tendency."(p.137) Is it so strange that so many breeds that were once high energy types have succumbed to this imbalance? Is it to satisfy the American pet owner's demand for a couch potato instead of a real dog? After all, this started well before vets were prescribing Prozac for pets. Or maybe this is just the result of too much "clicker-cookie" and not enough Koehler?
If only for maintaining a genetic research pool, I believe the primitive, aboriginal breeds from all parts of the world should NEVER be "bred out of existence". And while I respect and honor the marvelous, performance bred canines and their equally athletic, competitive, sincere, talented owner/drivers, I am somehow more impressed by a person's ability to manage and work with a team of traditional types, with all of their talents and inconveniences, than someone who competes with a border collie/saluki/hound mix. I would be more moved and flattered by the affection, attention and cooperation of a tiger than a rabbit.
In 29 years of interest in sled dogs, I have been a recreational musher, helped put on weight pulls, gone back-packing, camping and canoeing with dogs. I've put on demonstrations for the Boy Scouts, brought Santa Claus by "sleigh" into a party in an airplane hangar for hundreds of retarded children, given rides at the Winter Carnival in a local state park, been part of a Harvest Festival, trying to educate people and answer questions about dogs, shown and bred dogs (a couple of show champions and a couple of obedience titles), midwifed a few difficult litters of multiple breeds, wrote for a national club newsletter, published a local club newsletter, and sold some articles to dog magazines. I am also a serious book collector (and reader). My interest in dogs, their care, nutrition, behavior, sports medicine and alternative/complimentary therapies led me to take courses to become a Licensed Veterinary Technician; and then subsequently, a Registered Nurse. I have, therefore, enough education to really BEGIN to appreciate the species' capabilities and differences. I like to attend seminars and presentations on dog topics. At last year's Canine Genetics weekend at Cornell University, I had the luck to sit at the lunch table with one of the presenters. I asked him if he thought that the caliber of dog owners had decreased. OH YEAH!!!!, he shook his head. At this point, I would like to borrow a few lines from an article I read in my local newspaper (on a non dog matter, but still applicable): "Homo sapiens is most neatly defined as the species that is impelled to take every good idea to its most ludicrous extreme...where no sensible notion avoids being caricatured into its own antithesis. There are problems with trying to civilize with too heavy a hand. Good ideas should not be caricatured by excessive zeal...sterilizing is far too high a price to pay for civilization." (with apologies to Ian Tattersall). The answer to the dumbing down of America is NOT the dumbing down of our dogs!